If you paid attention at all during high-school biology class, then you already know that DNA(Deoxyribonucleic acid) is ostensibly a blueprint for every living plant, animal, and microbe in the history of life on planet Earth. DNA consists of a microscopic double helix formed from varying permutations of four nucleotides: guanine, thymine, adenine and cytosine, represented by the letters G, T, A, and C, respectively. Besides being really good at putting 9th graders to sleep,DNA is also one of the most efficient, stable, and compact storage mechanisms known to man. It is because of this fact that, ever since they’ve had the ability to sequence and synthesize DNA, scientists have been trying to find new ways to take advantage of its amazing properties. Now, it seems that Dr. Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute has brought mankind one giant step closer to that elusive and tantalizing goal.
Like many good ideas, Dr. Goldman’s was conceived while having a beer with a colleague. He and his fellow scientist, Dr. Ewan Birney, also of theEBI, pondered a problem facing many scientists and businesses alike: with the current rate at which information is being created, current hard drive technology won’t be able to keep up with the exponentially growing demand for storage space. A couple of beers, a few napkin sketches, and a montage later, Goldman and Birney had an outlined a method for converting the digital ones and zeros we currently use to store our text files, pictures, and YouTube videos to a molecular double helix and back again, with nary a bit lost. All that was left to do was to test it out. So they took to the internet and found four pieces of digital information: an audio clip of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a text file of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a .jpeg photo file of the EBI, where they both work, and of course a .pdf file of Watson and Crick’s famous paper, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids.”
They applied their conversion method, sent the DNA off to be synthesized, and waited. Upon receiving seemingly empty test tubes containing their synthetic DNA, Goldman and Birney sequenced the DNA, converted it back to digital format, and retrieved their files with 100% of the data intact. This unprecedented accuracy proves that the same DNA that can tell your eyes whether to be blue or brown can one day be used to store the massive torrent of data that we are all currently creating and sharing. This method has many advantages over current technologies, not the least of which is space. A gram of DNA, enough to barely show up as a speck on your fingertip, could hold about 2.2 petabytes of information. In simpler terms, that’s over 4000 times the capacity of an average laptop hard drive. Also,DNA is able to last a lot longer and withstand harsher conditions. As Dr. Alan Grant taught us in the film Jurassic Park back in the 1990s, a prehistoric creature’s DNA can be accurately sequenced after tens of thousands of years of exposure to the elements, while hard drives need cooling, power, and a fairly stable environment to last for even a few decades.
But don’t go trading in your SD Card for a test tube just yet, as there are a couple of downsides to this still amazing discovery. Like most nascent technologies, Dr. Goldman’s technique is very expensive, prohibitively so at the moment. It cost about $12,400 to sequence and convert one megabyte of data. Also, sequencing DNA is a lot slower than reading data from a hard drive. But the price of sequencing is dropping rapidly, and Dr. Goldman and other scientists on the forefront of DNA storage technology believe that in a relatively short time, it will be feasible to use DNA for at least archival purposes. In the future, the massive room-sized data centers that companies like Google currently maintain could be replaced by a small container of nature’s oldest storage medium. Amazing indeed.